Obituary: John Redburn, the Borders' best-known chimney sweep

John Redburn, chimney sweep. Born: 9 July, 1932, in Edinburgh. Died: 3 October, 2021, in Newtown St Boswells, aged 89

Jock Redburn pictured during his working days beside his prized Ford Anglia van

It is said that anyone seeing a chimney sweep, or shaking hands with one, will have good luck for the rest of the day. Folk who knew Jock Redburn, the Scottish Borders’ best-known chimney sweep, felt themselves lucky to have such an incomparable figure in their lives.

Mr Redburn, who died peacefully in his Newtown St Boswells home on October 3, at the age of 89, continued to sweep chimneys for 63 years, only stopping when ill-health intervened two years ago.

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Never without a smile on his face, Mr Redburn’s lively sense of humour and unfailingly cheerful outlook made him a welcome visitor to the home of every customer.

His musical talents, passion for vintage cars, as well as an innate ability to turn his hand to any job that might come his way, marked him out as one of the Borders’ true characters.

John Redburn was born in Edinburgh on July 9, 1932. His father Joe had worked as a ploughman in East Lothian, before he and his wife Martha (née Strachan) moved to Earlston, where Joe was employed as a builder’s labourer.

‘Jock the Sweep’ (as he was later to be fondly known) was the youngest of the Redburns’ four children, his siblings being Andrew, Martha and James.

Educated at Earlston Primary, Jock left school at 13 without being able to read or write, skills he would later teach himself during his time in the army.

During the war years Jock would often bunk off school and cycle over to Charterhall airfield, where he would spend hours watching the large bombers land and take off.

Aged 15 he began a five-year apprenticeship with Earlston motor engineers John Readman & Son in Westfield Road, then in 1951 undertook his National Service with the 3rd Regiment Royal Horse Artillery.

For a time he was also based with the Royal Tank Regiment in Germany, helping patrol the Russian border. Having taught himself to play the accordion as a child, Jock was regularly called on to entertain his fellow soldiers.

On returning to the Borders he began working with Melrose engineering firm Redpaths, before setting up his own one-man business, cycling between local farms to carry out repairs and other odd jobs.

By now the family had moved to Newtown St Boswells, and Jock would often take the train over to Melrose to earn extra income from cleaning windows.

It wasn’t long before he had bought his first set of ladders and embarked on a life-long career sweeping chimneys. His bike was replaced by an old Ford 8 car, which Jock converted into a van to carry his tools and chimney brushes.

It was the start of a life-long fascination with motor vehicles. In time the Ford 8 was replaced with a Morris Minor van, followed by a 1961 Ford Anglia van (meticulously maintained by Jock for the next 40 years) and two Ford Courier vans.

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Having rented ground at Laretburn, near St Boswells, Jock established a sawmill which, in the early years, turned out hundreds of pit props for coal mines on both sides of the border. Logs for firewood were also produced.

Following a three-year courtship, Jock married Mary (née McKenzie) at Bowden Kirk on August 3, 1957. They were blessed with three children – Eileen (born 1958), Bruce (1960) and Angus (1966). The couple would go on to enjoy 64 years of married life together.

In recent years Jock took special pleasure in spending time with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, regularly taking them on special trips in his camper van.

Music played a huge part in Jock’s life, whether watching local pipe bands or playing his accordion at the parties and dances he and Mary attended. In the early days he also made regular appearances in Jimmy Clinkscale’s Band.

Every New Year he would sit with his accordion entertaining the masses with never-ending Highland lilts. Another of Jock’s trademarks was a wee dram of whisky, that and a Sweetheart Stout.

His nephew Jimmy Gold, himself an accomplished accordion player, and who was best man at Jock and Mary’s wedding, remembers his uncle as always being the life and soul of the party.

“He was an amazing character. I remember one New Year’s Day he started playing his small accordion outside the house. People began arriving from all over, and within no time he was leading a procession around the streets with what seemed like the whole of Newtown following him!”

Another of Jock’s oldest friends, Midlem blacksmith Alan Scott, described him as “a legend”.

“He was someone you never saw down in the dumps, always smiling and on top of the world. He made all his own ladders, and when he got up on any roof was as agile as a cat.

“Everyone knew ‘Jock the Sweep’. He was someone you were always pleased to see and to have a grand blether with.

“He was also a very modest man, and at the vintage rallies he entered Jock wasn’t really interested in winning any prizes, only to enjoy the atmosphere and meet up with old friends.”

Well-known sculptor and furniture-maker Tim Stead was another of Jock’s friends, and if a suitable piece of timber turned up at the sawmill, Jock would contact Tim at his Blainslie workshop. Sections of Laretburn wood were used in the Papal Throne made by Tim for the visit of Pope John Paul 11 to Edinburgh in 1982.

Another creative individual grateful for Jock’s assistance was Eduard Bersudsky, who founded the Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre in Glasgow. He often visited Jock in the early 1990s to source materials, creating one of his mechanical sculptures, 'Jock's Joke', in his honour, with Jock himself represented in the piece by a carved figure.

Mr Redburn is survived by Mary, their three children, seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

The funeral service will be held at Bowden Kirk on Tuesday, October 19, at 12.45pm, followed by interment in the cemetery.

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